Letter From Whitefish
A reporter visits the Montana resort town where a vicious neo-Nazi campaign is targeting Jews.
We have withheld the names of some people interviewed for this story, as well as its author, to protect their identities.
In Whitefish, Montana, a charming resort town of about 6,000 near Glacier National Park, winter conversation tends to be dominated by the snow conditions at the nearby resort—which happen to be excellent this year—and the lack of parking spots along Central Avenue, soon to be addressed by a parking structure. But when I arrive this year, weather and parking seem quaint concerns compared to a vicious anti-Semitic campaign that has upended the town, thanks to its connection to white supremacist and part-time Whitefish resident Richard Spencer.
Spencer, who heads up the white supremacist think tank The National Policy Institute, is the man behind the “alt-right”—a term he coined to brand his advocacy for a white European ethno-state. Dubbed an “academic racist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Spencer sparked a media frenzy in November with a post-election speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, in which he quoted Nazi propaganda—in the original German—and received Nazi salutes from some audience members when he cried out, “Hail Trump. Hail our people. Hail Victory.” Although Spencer’s presence has earned local rebuke—in 2014, shortly after Spencer moved his think tank headquarters to town, the city council repudiated his ideas in a nondiscrimination ordinance—the current campaign of hate came quickly and seemingly without warning.
Spencer’s parents—Sherry and Rand—are full-time Whitefish residents, where they own a mixed-use commercial building just a few blocks from the historic train depot. They recently distanced themselves from their son’s views, but in December, Sherry published an essay online claiming that she was being pressured by a Jewish realtor to sell her building or face protests and boycotts of her tenants’ businesses.
In response, The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, posted an article declaring that Jews—whom the piece called “a vicious, evil race of hate-filled psychopaths”—were trying to extort money from Sherry Spencer. The author, Andrew Anglin, who the SPLC calls a prolific internet troll and serial harasser, encouraged his followers to conduct an “old-fashioned troll storm” against three prominent women in the Jewish community and two of their husbands. He published their business addresses and phone numbers as well as family photos (including photos of their children) with hateful captions and a yellow Star of David with the word “Jude” superimposed. He also encouraged readers to troll a local human rights group called Love Lives Here, which formed to combat neo-Nazi activity in the Flathead Valley back in 2010. “Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda to attack and harm the mother of someone whom they disagree with,” he instructed. In a follow-up post, Anglin called on his followers to target Whitefish businesses and organizations he claims are supporting the “Jewish extortion racket,” including the Montana Human Rights Network, which is affiliated with Love Lives Here, the Chamber of Commerce and several elected officials. “We’re winning big in Whitefish, in our battle against the sickening Jew racket running the town,” he crowed.
Since then, there hasn’t been any peace for those targeted. Anglin disavows violence, but people here know it just takes one nut with a gun. There aren’t many Jews in the Flathead community—just around 40 families—and right now they’re doing their best to avoid media attention.
I am fortunate to track down one prominent member of the local Jewish community in the parking lot of the Whitefish Community Center, where he and his wife had stopped by to pick up a box of cards and letters community members had dropped off to show their support. He is quick to defend his town. “Whitefish, Montana, is one of the world’s greatest places to live,” he tells me. “This is not an anti-Semitic community. There are anti-Semites who live here. But there are anti-Semites who live in every town in the United States.”
“We’re really known for friendliness and inclusion,” says Lisa Jones, of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And this is an example of it right here.”
“Right here” is the community center, where I find Jones, along with a steady stream of residents, some with kids in tow, hugging each other and bearing cards of support and offerings of food, wine and homemade goods for their neighbors who have been targeted. “I believe food is a powerful uniter,” one woman says, explaining her gift of homegrown onions, potatoes, garlic and a soup made from her own squash.
“This kind of hatred—there’s no room for it in our community,” says a Whitefish native whose grandparents ran the area’s first dairy back in the 1920s.
“I thought this kind of anti-Semitic behavior had died out,” his wife adds. She had organized the donations, even though she is not Jewish, and in fact doesn’t think she actually knows any Jews, who, despite a long history in the state, are but a small minority in Montana (population estimates run anywhere from 1,350 to 6,000, of a total state population of just over one million). “I didn’t realize these families were still facing this kind of harassment and hate. It’s heartbreaking.”
It is also, she adds, frightening. “I’m trying to be brave. I’m trying to do the right thing. I think it’s important we stand up to this,” she says. But she had seen how quickly anyone could become a target of internet trolls after she expressed public support on Facebook for one Jewish woman’s business. Almost immediately, someone tracked her down and left a nasty negative comment on her own business’s Facebook page, clearly in retaliation. It doesn’t take much to get caught up in the social media firestorm. The owner of a bustling family-owned café I spoke with doesn’t know why his business has been targeted, although he suspects it might be because he has a Jewish-sounding last name. First, he received four nasty phone calls—two from blocked numbers, and two from international numbers—mentioning Spencer, and then ugly reviews on Google. “The place reeks of liberalism and racial intolerance,” read one, seemingly conflating two opposing viewpoints, and adding: “The food was terrible as well.” Another troll claimed he’d found a cockroach in his burger.
“It’s a cunning form of evil,” an attorney familiar with the situation tells me when he comes into the community center. “This is the deep dark shadow of the internet. It allows maleficent human beings to avoid any accountability for their behavior.”
Locals, determined to push back and support their Jewish neighbors, have adopted a range of strategies. Some are posting a flood of positive reviews for targeted businesses to drown out the hate-filled ones. Others are publicly supporting Love Lives Here. Around Hanukkah, the Montana Human Rights Network and Love Lives Here distributed paper images of menorahs for businesses in Whitefish to place in their windows.
This isn’t the first time Montanans have used this tactic as a show of solidarity. In 1993, following the spread of anti-Semitic literature and vandalism directed at Jews, thousands of residents of Billings, the state’s largest city, placed paper menorahs in their windows; the action became a model of resistance when it was featured in a documentary called Not in Our Town.
Many Whitefish residents hope their town will also become a model of resistance. But it may take more than paper menorahs, positive Google reviews or even a Love Not Hate rally that is in the works. Meanwhile, the town—and state and local officials—are wary of what is to come: The Daily Stormer is calling for an armed march on Whitefish the second week in January.